The Department of Energy Mines and Resources says it would have to break its own laws if it wanted to follow the Yukon Environmental and Socio-Economic Assessment Board’s recommendations for capping an abandoned well in the Kotaneelee gas field.
The territory’s regulations for oil and gas drilling don’t allow for the kind of vented cap the board wanted the government to use, said assistant deputy minister John Fox.
Yukon’s regulations, this portion of which was last updated in 2004, explicitly say that caps have to be sealed.
Vented caps are designed to help to relieve potential of gas buildup in an abandoned well and prevent leaking.
Both British Columbia and Alberta require them as part of an abandonment plan but other western jurisdictions, including the Yukon, require the top plate to be welded on without a vent, Fox said.
Alberta’s rules have been in place since 2008.
Fox said Alberta is able to move more quickly than the Yukon when it comes to making changes to its abandonment rules because it only requires a directive from the government, not a change to regulations the way the Yukon does.
“Over time other jurisdictions will be able to complete a review, look at the risks in their jurisdiction and either decide to adopt those regulations or decide that it’s not necessary.”
The plan is to review the Yukon’s regulations to see if they need to be updated before four abandoned wells get capped next summer, Fox said.
Those four wells were left behind when Houston-based EFLO went belly-up earlier this year. Three were originally own by Apache Corp. and later sold to Paramount Resources. The fourth well could not be turned over to Apache because ELFO held a 100-per-cent stake in it, so it became the property of the Yukon government.
Apache, which has offices in Alberta, was willing to install the vented caps on the three wells it owned. It originally planned to follow Alberta’s laws when submitting its plans to YESAB.
Even if the company was willing to install the more modern vents, Yukon’s current laws wouldn’t have allowed it, Fox said.
NDP Leader Liz Hanson questioned why the Yukon hasn’t caught up to Alberta.
“We were told repeatedly, every time we ask questions about oil and gas in the Yukon, that we’re following best practises and we follow either what’s going on in Alberta or British Columbia,” she said.
“It sort of makes you wonder how are you assessing what’s best practice for the Yukon.”
Just because the Yukon’s laws don’t require wells to be vented, doesn’t mean the wells are unsafe, Fox said.
The government’s rules are stringent, he said, and require steps like multiple plugs along the well and in some cases 60 metres worth of cement.
“There are, across Western Canada tens of thousands of wells that are abandoned without vented caps,” Fox said.
Sebastian Jones, an energy analyst for the Yukon Conservation Society, acknowledged the government puts a lot of effort into making sure that abandoned wells don’t leak.
“The efforts they go through to make sure these damn things don’t leak is astonishing, but nonetheless they do fail,” he said.
Jones said it makes sense for the government provisions for potentially venting a build up of pressure in an abandoned well.
“In almost every situation I know of it’s easier and cheaper to fix a problem when it’s in its early stages than when it’s reached the point of no return.”
As it is, taking on responsibility for one of the abandoned wells won’t be cheap for the Yukon government.
The estimate is that it will cost about $2.4 million to completely shut down. EFLO left behind only about $600,000 worth of security.
Fox said work on abandoning the three wells owned by Paramount is mostly completed though the wells have not been capped yet.
No work was done on the Yukon’s well this summer. Fox said the government had hoped to “piggyback” on what Paramount was doing but ran out of time. It will happen next year, he said.
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